NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The U.S. Army’s aviation branch is reaching a critical inflection point where it will need to determine how and when to begin retiring its aircraft fleet — while also keeping some of them flying for decades as it adopts new piloted and unmanned vertical lift platforms along with launched effects.
Maj. Gen. Mac McCurry, who runs the Army Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Novosel, Alabama, is playing a key role in leading that process.
The Army plans to field a Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) and a Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA), as well as a variety of tactical drones and launched effects to aid crewed aircraft, giving pilots greater standoff from enemy threats.
But the Army must also modernize its fleet of AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters and CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopters to keep them flying at least two more decades, albeit some will remain in the fleet considerably longer.
At the same time, McCurry is also focused on ensuring aviation training keeps up with the service’s newer, complex missions expected in the future.
Defense News sat down for an exclusive interview with McCurry at the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual symposium on April 26 to talk about how the service is preparing for a new era of aviation. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
The U.S. Army chose the Bell-made V-280 Valor tiltrotor for its FLRAA effort, and this is the first the Army will fly a tiltrotor aircraft. How are the Army Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Novosel preparing for training with the aircraft and its integration into the fleet?
The team has started working with the Capabilities Development Integration Directorate and the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence, working together to refine all of those things that wrap around a materiel thing to create a capability so you have the trained people at the right time, you have the doctrine at the right time, we have leaders able to employ the system and understand how we want to do that doctrinally, and we have the facilities and things available.
As we look at it, facilities are clearly the longest lead time.
The good news is the models that were downselected have a reasonable correlation to our aircraft today. It’s a larger aircraft, a little bit, but from a height, width, and how it can stack in a hangar perspective, it’s very close. We don’t see a lot of blossoming needs there.
We’re working on the force design update, and we’re working on the allocation. The basis of issue is probably not directly one-for-one for a Black Hawk. With an increased capability, you probably don’t need the same amount in each formation, so we’re looking and doing the modeling [to determine] how many do you need.
On facilities specifically, everyone seems to gravitate to hangars. Most of our aircraft live outside. When you go by an Army airfield, we don’t have all the aircraft parked in the hangar; most of the aircraft are living out on the ramp. When you need to take them into the hangar to do certain things, whether it’s overhead lift capacity or something else, then we do that.
As we look at increased speed and range, then we begin to look at how we’re going to conduct training, and that’s really where our focus will largely be. We have gone out to every installation and done assessments, and the Army G-3/5/7 ultimately decides prioritizations for fielding. Once we get further in the program where we have a Milestone B, and we’re in the [engineering and manufacturing development] phase, and we’re working toward a Milestone C, then some of those things will fall into place, but I would expect them to follow the other Army priorities for the divisions.
The good news is, it’s not the first tiltrotor in the Defense Department, and we have sister services, so we’re relying heavily on what the Marines and the Air Force have done and how they use their platforms. Then we’re going to do individual training, so some sort of individual qualification will have to occur. My focus will be on how you build a cadre of people that know how to fly that. Then from there, it’s almost like when we first brought the AH-64 into the Army, we had a collective training opportunity where we formed those units, and we did one-station collective training before they landed at an installation. We’ll look at models like that in the future.
LUH-72A Lakotas became the Army’s basic trainer about seven years ago replacing TH-67s. That took the fleet from a single-engine to a dual-engine aircraft, among other changes. How has that worked out?
We picked at that time when aviation restructure was being worked. We kind of picked it because we had it, right? It’s not like we went out and said: “This is the purpose-built thing.” We said, “We own them,” and Congress was very gracious and gave us more to create the training base.
It’s been an effective trainer. My daughter and my son-in-law are both aviators, and one of them trained in the TH-67, and one of them trained in the LUH, so I got firsthand feedback from my kids — and my kids will always tell you how it really is.
[The digital cockpit features in an LUH made for an easier transition to more advanced aircraft with similar cockpits]. Some of the more tactile flight skills might be more developed in TH-67. [The Lakota] has been an effective trainer. It probably has a lot of things on it that you wouldn’t necessarily just go out and put on a purpose-built trainer, but it’s worked.
Do you see the LUH-72A as the trainer for many years to come, or is there an appetite within the Army to look at more purpose-built trainers as you modernize?
It’s something we’re always assessing and considering, and certainly as we start to look at future platforms we will continue to assess the training fleet and what’s right. But again, we also have a top line, and you have to be sustainable.
How are you looking at modernizing Black Hawks and Apaches? What upgrades need to take place for these systems if they are to fly for a couple more decades and keep up with the future vertical lift fleet?
You can always do a range of things from nothing to a new aircraft, and so we’re obviously not going to do nothing. The next step would be safety enhancements only; we’re doing more than that. And so we fall into this “targeted modernization” term, and twice a year we get together with product managers in the [Program Executive Office Aviation], with our capability managers, with the branch chief, and we go soup to nuts through each platform.
During the year things emerge — whether it’s the generators on AH-64 that we’re looking at — so we keep a running list of the things in order of priority from “need to do” to “really nice to do” on each platform that we kind of continually modulate. If you look at Apache, for instance, in this year’s fiscal 2024 request, Apache mods went up 30% — about $27.3 million. That’s specifically focused on giving us some additional capabilities with Link 16. Additionally it’s focused on going from metal to composite main rotor blades on the portion of the fleet that was still metal. That’s kind of how we go about it.
When we say “targeted modernization,” we’re watching for those things that are either emerging obsolescence, as in the case of the rotor blades, or some sort of safety or emerging quality problem that we can work together with our [original equipment manufacturers] on. We’re doing that across both of those fleets.
A aside from that, it’s not just the platform — you’ve got the aircraft survivability equipment, you’ve got the [Improved Turbine Engine Program], [degraded visual environment] capabilities that we’re also working on to continue to keep these current capabilities viable as we transition to the future.
There were a few aviation accidents with the National Guard in recent history. What is the service learning from these most recent accidents, including March’s Black Hawk collision that is still under investigation?
For the last three years, we’ve had the safest three years in history — never had another three-year period below one accident per 100,000 [flight hours]. And we were well below that. Last year it was 0.5 per 100,000. And last year we didn’t lose a single crew member in an aviation accident. So from that perspective, we’re proud of the record.
Now, every time we lose a soldier, aviation or otherwise, it’s a tragic occurrence. It’s somebody’s father, mother, sister, brother, son or daughter out there, and so we want to take them all seriously. We’re working with the [Combat Readiness Center], we’re waiting on the outcome of the latest investigation.
I talked with everybody in the Army National Guard, state aviation officers, aviation support facility commanders that are here, and we talked specifically about how across the force — not component specific but component agnostic — we have to continue to apply the same rigid standardization that the branch was built on. That’s from initial mission-approval authority through mission briefing officers, mitigating risk, to final mission-approval authority, and then the crews executing the mission. All of us are focused on that. The great thing is, when we get together and have our [virtual meetings], we’ve got the director of National Guard aviation [attending] each week, and we freely circulate. There’s no component compartmentalization on any of this.
We will work through it, I think that we will stabilize. But as the branch chief, I keep a keen focus on what are the causal factors, so once they come out we’ll be able to see if there’s something we need to change.
In recent years, have helicopter-related incidents more often involved user errors or technical issues?
Historically, we have more accidents because of human error.
There are a couple things to think about as we transition from heel-to-toe rotations for 20 years, where your average chief warrant officer two had two combat tours under his belt and was getting almost 1,000 hours a tour. Now, some will argue those hours were all the same, but it’s experience in an aircraft to help you deal with things in extremis.
We have definitely seen a loss of flight experience across the force with less heel-to-toe rotations. And with retirements and those of us that are around my age retiring out of the force, we’ve seen this decrement in experience. At the same time, we are asking them to do some complex tasks in large-scale combat operations; more tasks focused on combined arms maneuver and operating in larger elements. Those things bring additional risk. That’s why my focus as the branch chief is on standardization.
Without deployment experience in a wartime environment, how are you training and preparing pilots? How much could be simulated training versus actual flight hours?
We’ve never equated one simulator hour to one live flight hour. I don’t know what that calculus is, but it’s not 1-to-1. Emergency procedures of some of our most extreme emergencies should be trained in simulation. Also, in some instances, reaction to threats can be trained in simulation.
We have to be able to collectively maneuver platoons and companies in that simulation, so that’s where our focus is. We’ll continue to leverage that to the maximum extent in both institutional training at Fort Novosel and in the operational force.
We’re not going to fly the number of hours we flew downrange, certainly, but we have been adequately and well-funded by Congress to give us the opportunities to fly.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.